Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tommy's Take on Bulletproof Blues

What do you do when a Supers game doesn't do precisely what you want it to? In this day and age, you design your own. Brandon Blackmoore did just that, producing Bulletproof Blues. With the 2nd Edition Kickstarter just launching, I'm going to take a moment to review the 1st Edition.

DISCLAIMER: An affiliate link for this game is included, but honestly, if it sounds appealing to you, you are probably better served backing the 2nd Edition Kickstarter. No review copy was provided by the publisher.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Bulletproof Blues is available in print for $14.95 and PDF for $4.95, and the rules have been made available via Creative Commons. It is set in the Kalos Comics universe, a fictional superhero universe in which their Superman equivalent went bad and killed his buddies.

The core mechanic is 2d6 plus attribute compared to a target number. In certain situations, you can "Take the Average" or "Take the Max", ala the d20 system's "Take 10" or "Take 20", and characters being with a single "Plot Point", which are not unlike Bennies, Action Points, Drama Points, etc.

Character creation is recommended to be done together, to ensure that everyone covers their own niche (better to have Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Hulk on your team than a team of Iron Man, War Machine, Captain America and USAgent). First, you pick the non-mechanical details, like the Sobriquet (like "Sentinel of Liberty", "Man of Steel", Friendly Neighborhood Wall-Crawler", etc), before moving on to Background, Origin (of which the Bulletproof Blues setting has specific ones, like Alien, Aspects [Folks that were empowered by, say, nature or animal spirits], Gifted [who were born that way] and so on), Archetype (and not the normal selection here...don't come in expecting to find the Brick, Speedster, Blaster and so forth...instead you'll find the Dolphin, the Clay, the Shadow, and the Tank - the latter of whom lists Invisible Woman of all people as an example), Motivations (like Faith, Anger, Guilt, Idealism or Vengeance), Complications (How you gain Plot Points - like Enemy, Gruesome or Outsider), before finally setting the Power Level and Power Points used to build your character. Power Level largely resembles Mutants & Masterminds Power Level, encouraging you to keep Attack, Damage and Protection all within a certain range dictated by it. Additionally, it sets your point pool used to build your character with (the low end get 20 points, the high end gets 90 points, and the rest fall somewhere in between). An accompanying table lists guidelines for villains as well (which are pretty well in line with the heroic values).

Characters have 8 attributes, ranked on a scale of 1-14, with human maximum generally topping out at 4. Your attributes are Brawn, Agility, Reason, Perception, Willpower, Prowess, Accuracy and Endurance. The skill system isn't noticeably overdone, unlike a lot of games, providing skills in broad groups while allowing for Expertise in certain functions of a skill, which allows for the possibility of extreme success.

Characters get Advantages, like Headquarters, Famous, Master Plan (which sounds a bit villainous, but covers Batman style planning), Wealthy, Team Player (which allows for spending of Plot Points for your allies) and even martial artist stuff like Lightning Strike.

Powers are bought in ranks, and you can take Expertise in powers just the same as with skills. You get a lot of the old standards here, like Blast, Force Field, Invulnerability, Shapeshifting, Strike...with "blanket" powers like Amazing Movement that require additional definition (Space Travel, Astral Travel, Time Travel, so on). There is a caveat listed in this section about how the rules don't necessarily apply to NPCs (especially villains) whose powers may not face the same limits as PCs.

Equipment is largely simulated bu the Blast and Strike powers (for weapons) and other powers for different equipment.

Initiative is handled by the narrative, rather than initiative rolls, and damage by marking off Endurance for any damage that makes it past your defense.

A number of hazards are also described, including Liefeld radiation, which is known to shrink your hands and feet and massively expand your muscles.

The World section provides a "finer points" overview of the world, discussing Atlantis and Lemuria in the universe, as well as extraterrestrials, before delving into the history of Posthumans, which first appeared in World War 2 (as they tend to).

Ten characters are included in the book as examples, four heroes and six villains. They provide a look at various character types, and even break from expected character norms (like the speedster, Blueshift, being immortal). In addition to Blueshift, we get examples of a super scientist, a Moon Knight-esque vigilante, a super strong (and not so smart) hero, as well as villains like a psychic parasite, a gorilla with mental powers and an asian criminal mastermind.

Greg Stolze provides essays on how to GM and how to play RPGs, but I honestly can't tell you if I've read them before, or if it just feels like I have, because they are pretty generic and all purpose.

WHAT WORKS: Some very nice art is present, and some of the stock characters really stand out. I like how a lot of the Advantages are handled, namely Headquarters, which tends to be an overly costly, underused element of other systems. One of my pet peeves is supers games that think they are being clever with "pages" and "panels", but Bulletproof Blues avoids that.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Several of the tables are oriented badly for use on a screen (though a physical book or most tablets will handle them fine). Some of the in-jokes and references were groan-worthy (Liefeld Radiation). I don't mind a game set in their own universe, but pretending like actual comics were published when talking about characters and backgrounds is almost as big of a pet peeve to me as the "pages" and "panels" thing. A second edition a year after the first was release is...disconcerting.

CONCLUSION: I kinda get the sense that Bulletproof Blues is cobbled together from pieces of other games, feeling like a strange intersection between Mutants & Masterminds, BASH and ICONS. It's definitely not as lite as ICONS or as crunchy as M&M, but it can't settle on the freewheeling narrative approach that the initiative system preaches vs the point buy and standard RPG advancement of more traditional RPGs. On one hand, I do find the Kickstarter for a second edition already hitting a year after the first hit RPGNow to be disconcerting, but the rules are all released via Creative Commons, so that may alleviate some concerns. The How to Play and How to GM essays are unnecessary and feel like filler, though the sidebars within both sections are very informative. I am of the mind that small press RPGs should probably keep the How to Play short and sweet and genre focused, assuming that they are reaching few brand new players, and GM sections should be geared towards running the specific game, setting and genre. I may sound overly critical here, but I don't think Bulletproof Blues is a bad game...I just think it is geared specifically towards people who have sampled about every other supers RPG and found them lacking. If that's you, you might give it a shot. If you're happy where you're at, I don't think anything here is going to sway you.